It might be dubbed South Yorkshire’s ‘little FA Cup’, but the significance of the historic Montagu Cup is anything but small.
Next year will commemorate 125 years since the Cup’s inaugural final in 1897 after the competition was started as a philanthropic endeavour to raise funds for Mexborough Montagu Hospital. But its reputation extends further than medicinal merit. The very spirit of the tournament is imprinted in sporting history, with scores of finalists going on to play for professional clubs and in notorious competitions around the world.
Before their quasquicentennial celebrations in 2022, the committee has been piecing together the Cup’s rich history and is calling for past players or relatives to help complete the photographic collection.
But what is the Montagu Cup?
In the late 19th Century, Dearne Valley residents who sustained injuries were either treated at home or taken by horse and trap to Doncaster or Rotherham infirmaries if they required more serious medical intervention. This was often a long and arduous journey for the injured and so a decision was made to establish a hospital in the Dearne.
A building on Bank Street was provided on a long lease with nominal rent by Andrew Montagu and the 14-bed Montagu Cottage Hospital was officially opened in 1890. As inpatient demand outgrew capacity, the hospital moved to its current site on Adwick Road in 1905, undergoing various extensions and upgrades since then.
One of the many ideas put forward to raise extra cash for the hospital was a local football tournament and so the Mexborough Montagu Hospital Charity Cup committee was launched. The first final was held on Easter Monday 1897 at Hampden Road, Mexborough where Ecclesfield took home the trophy after beating Newhill 2-0.
Back in the days when football was one of the only forms of entertainment, the annual matches would attract thousands of spectators, bringing in a great deal of revenue from the turnstiles. Income generated would soon prove to far exceed the £85 paid for the trophy – around £8,000 in today’s money – which is comparable in silver content and value to the original FA Cup.
Initially, the competition was limited to teams within a seven-mile radius of Mexborough, attracting teams within that boundary from Rawmarsh and Parkgate, to Wombwell and Darfield. Non-league and amateur clubs have pitched for the title ever since, with play only stopping for two years in 1918 and 1919 due to the First World War.
Throughout its history, the competition has heralded the start of various players’ professional careers, the terraces at Hampden Road bearing witness to many a tenderfoot who would go on to play elite football.
In the interwar years, before the prominence of celebrity in football really began, many of the region’s footballers combined sport with labour-heavy work. Young lads like Joe Beresford who was a pit pony stablehand at Bentley Colliery and played for Askern Road WMC in the 1924 Montagu final. He went on to play nine seasons for Aston Villa before joining Preston North End where he played in an FA Cup Final. Or Rotherham United centre-forward Wally Ardron who worked as an engine fireman on the Mexborough to Cleethorpes train line. Before playing and scoring in the 1944 Montagu final at 6.15pm, Wally had already played 90 minutes and scored the winner in the 3 o’clock kick-off against Sheffield United at Milmoor, following a 2am start on the railway. He even rode his bike between each of these commitments.
Some Montagu finalists even graced stadiums outside of the UK, such as Pete Scott and Colin Dawson who were both in the 1973 Rawmarsh Horse and Jockey side and also played for non-league Matlock Town in the ‘70s. The lads, from Kilnhurst and Swinton, were part of a Matlock squad dominated by Rotherham and Sheffield players – they even trained at Herringthorpe instead of travelling to Derbyshire. Two years after playing in the Montagu Cup final, Pete and Colin were in The Gladiators’ FA Trophy winning team at Wembley in 1975. Another few years on and they found themselves playing against Pisa and Chieti in an Anglo-Italian competition after winning the Northern Premier League Cup.
The nature of grassroots football means Montagu Cup medals were often held by family members spanning various generations. Indeed, both Colin’s dad Eric and grandfather Sidney won Montagu medals. Sidney scored four goals in the 1914 finals; a record held until very recently when Joker FC’s Ross Duggan scored four of the six goals that led the Bramley team to victory in 2019.
Other local families for whom Montagu glory beckoned were the Whitehouses who had five members in the 1968 High Terrace squad, and the Burkinshaws who had eight finalist medals between them – including three elite club brothers, Jack, Laurie and Ralph, their uncle Abe who played for Barnsley FC, and Jack’s grandson Nigel who played in three finals from 1989 to 2000.
Nigel isn’t the only player to make multiple appearances in finals spanning a couple of decades. Ian ‘Ike’ Cotton is thought to have played the most cup finals, making an appearance seven times from 1986-2000 and being on the winning side four times. From the same generation of players, Dean Oxer makes it six wins out of six appearances, having played for various clubs between 1985-2000 and bagging four goals collectively.
It is clear to see the Montagu Cup has touched the hearts of so many South Yorkshire families over the course of play. But that’s not to say it is without controversy. In 125 years, there has been the 1904 final which ended in spectators getting injured and the 1945 final which was decided by whichever team won the next corner. The 1949 final which ended in a 1-1 draw between Rawmarsh Welfare and Kilnhurst Colliery, was replayed but neither team managed to score during normal or extra time. For the first time in the competition’s history, it was decided the trophy would be shared for six months each – yet Kilnhurst secretary Jack Haythorne subsequently declined the trophy handover, citing the glory had passed.
Due to Covid, this year’s final between Joker and Swinton Athletic has been postponed from its usual fixture of Easter Monday. It will hopefully be played in May to a crowd of spectators, enabling monies to be raised for the hospital from entrance fees.
If you have any old photos of former Montagu Cup finals, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or via their Facebook page @montagucup. To see what the team has already collated, the website is filled with interesting information and old photographs spanning its 125-year history. www.montagucup.com